The Chicago Syndicate: "The Family" Mob Musical to Open on Thursday

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

"The Family" Mob Musical to Open on Thursday

Is it just a silly trifle about a bunch of wise guys, or is Arlene Violet’s musical about the Rhode Island mob the real deal? Thursday will tell, when “The Family,” which has been four years in the making, opens for a month-long run at the Lederer Theater Center in Providence, the Washington Street home of Trinity Rep.

The show, based on some of the more colorful characters Violet encountered as Rhode Island attorney general in the mid-1980s, has got to be the most anticipated event of the summer. After all, who can resist Mafia lore, especially in Rhode Island, where organized crime has had such deep roots? And who isn’t curious about anything touched by Violet, the former nun and prosecutor, and now a controversial radio talk show host?

Only a musical about Buddy Cianci might top it.

Violet doesn’t want to say too much about the plot of her baby, except that it’s “gritty but also funny, because wise guys are funny.” But South County composer Enrico Garzilli, who wrote the musical’s 20-plus songs and lyrics, said the show packs an unexpected punch. “It’s going to surprise a lot of people,” said Garzilli, who has written the music and books for four other musicals. “It’s extremely powerful.”

The cast moved into the rented upstairs space at the Lederer Theater last week, where it will perform on a set that at times resembles the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill, with its pine-nut arch and unassuming vending machine company that for years served as headquarters for the late Raymond L.S. Patriarca, longtime head of the New England rackets.

Meanwhile, Violet is busy raising money, doing publicity and making sure New York movers and shakers come to town to see the show. She has hopes of taking “The Family” to New York, but said that will cost $8 million.

“I am extremely busy,” she said, “just not creatively.”

This is not Violet’s first crack at writing. Her 200-page autobiography “Convictions” came out in 1988, the year after she left elective office as state Attorney General. Last year, Simon & Schuster published “The Mob and Me,” her tribute to her friend, the late John Partington, who started the federal witness-protection program. But this is her first theatrical venture, one that had its beginnings in a casual conversation with Garzilli after the premiere at the Providence Performing Arts Center of his coming-of-age musical “Michelangelo.” Garzilli, a former priest who received much of his musical training in Rome, suggested a future collaboration and Violet jumped at the chance, turning to what she knew best, the mobsters she encountered as attorney general.

She once joked that she and Garzilli decided to stay away from lampooning the Catholic Church, given their backgrounds.

Violet met once a week with Garzilli, who gave her pointers on how to write for a musical and helped flesh out an outline she had written. They started work in July of 2007, and by December of that year the project was finished, save for some tweaking.

“The Family” follows the exploits of a certain crime boss named Don Marco, who bears a striking resemblance to Patriarca. Don Marco wants his son, Renaldo, to take over the family business. But the sensitive Renaldo, who is into opera and other guys, wants no part of that life.

Meanwhile, the godfather has more family problems to deal with when two of his lieutenants rat him out. The show’s two snitches, Joe Barros and Vinny the Capo, are based on murderer and government informant Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, and Vincent “Fat Vinny” Teresa, who wrote a book about his years in the Mafia. Both men testified against Patriarca.

The Don’s troubles come to a head in the potent second act.

The characters are essentially composites with real-life roots. The song “What a Saint Is He” tells how the godfather gives money to a desperate woman for an eye operation for her son, something Patriarca once did. The woman sings how Don Marco does more for the neighborhood than politicians, the police and even, God forgive me, the priests.

The song, said Violet, shows that even bad guys have a good side, a recurrent theme in the show. When snitch Joe Barros goes into witness protection at the end of act one, he gives his daughter a string of pearls, albeit stolen pearls, to ease her pain of having to give up the life she knew, echoing a practice of Barboza, who in real life used to give his daughter a doll each time he killed someone.

At the same time, the tough U. S. Marshal in the show has his bad side, said Violet. In other words, no one in the show is all black or white, except perhaps the son, Renaldo, the aspiring opera singer who is gay. Garzilli called him the show’s “moral barometer,” the son every mother would love to have.

In most musicals in which there is a gay character, like “La Cage aux Folles,” audiences have to contend with what Violet called the “swish factor.” She finds that stereotype “counterproductive.”

“Maybe if people see a character like the son,” said Violet, “it will change the Rhode Island debate over same-sex marriage.”

The show also features a Mafia induction ceremony using the transcript from an actual FBI wiretap. Violet said the godfather and the inductee, the “made man,” speak at times in Italian, just like on the FBI tape, but then the rest of the gang chimes in and repeats the lines in English, like a chorus.

The story of “The Family” is not told by crooks alone. Violet wanted to include a tribute to Partington, and show what federal marshals had to deal with when it came to the families of mobsters, people whose lives were often thrown into chaos when they entered the witness-protection program. In the moving song “What’s Going to Become of Us,” Barros’ wife, Claire, laments her fate, finding out that the guy she married isn’t who she thought he was.

“I wanted to show the human element that the marshals had to deal with,” said Violet. She said it’s her “tip of the hat” to Partington, who served for a while as Providence public safety commissioner under Cianci.

The music for the show, for the most part, has a big band flavor, the kind of Vegas-inspired sounds mobsters might have danced to in the 1970s and ’80s. But composer Garzilli, who has an eclectic musical background, said he just as often took his inspiration from Stravinsky, especially the composer’s use of poly-rhythms. There is even a homage to Puccini, in a scene where Renaldo sings at the Providence Performing Arts Center, while his father is on the phone with a Chicago mob boss and another character is being beaten senseless in a corner.

The show opens with the song “Family Values,” with its code of, “see nuttin’, know nuttin’, say nuttin’ at all.” It’s a tune that pops up in various guises every time this code comes into play, and provides something of a unifying thread to the musical.

“My writing leads up to the emotion of the song,” said Violet. “It’s not enough to say these words; we have to sing them to get the emotion of the scene.”

The cast is pretty much made up of local talent, including five Rhode Island College theater students. Tom Gleadow, who has done a lot of work at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, plays Don Marco, the godfather. Mark Colozzi, head of music in the Cranston public schools, who has sung as a tenor soloist throughout the Diocese of Providence, is Barros, the snitch. Colin Earyes, who is from Scranton, Pa, and getting his musical theater degree from West Chester University this month, plays the gay son Renaldo.

“All things being considered, we gave preference to Rhode Islanders,” said Violet. “We wanted to showcase the talent here to out-of-towners.”

Violet said she likes the touches director Peter Sampieri has brought to rehearsals so far. In one scene, he has Joe Barros doing push-ups to stay in shape. That rings true, she said, because in real life, Barboza was a former boxer who liked to work out. One thing she is looking for in the show, she said, is authenticity.

Whether that’s enough to make “The Family” the hit of the summer remains to be seen. But even if the show is not the greatest thing since sliced prosciutto, it won’t be for lack of trying.

“Arlene worked very hard on the show,” said Garzilli, “and I tried to do the same. We were never satisfied.”

“The Family” opens Thursday and runs through July 1 at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington St., Providence. The show is renting the theater; it is not a Trinity Rep production. Tickets are $60. Call (401) 351-4242.

Thanks to Channing Gray

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